[Screen It]

(2007) (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson) (PG-13)

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Drama/Adventure: A teenage wizard must contend with changes at his school all while trying to get everyone to believe in and prepare for the return of a dangerous entity in this fifth installment of the "Harry Potter" series.
Having broken the rules about using magic in front of "muggles" by saving his bullying cousin Dudley (HARRY MELLING) from an unusual attack by soul sucking fiends known as dementors, Harry Potter (DANIEL RADCLIFFE) learns that he's been expelled from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While head instructor Professor Dumbledore (MICHAEL GAMBON) successfully defends Harry in front of a Ministry hearing held by Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (ROBERT HARDY), the teenage wizard ends up with a tarnished reputation among his classmates.

That is, except for longtime friends Ron Weasley (RUPERT GRINT) and Hermione Granger (EMMA WATSON). They're concerned about Harry's growing inner turmoil and angst, while new and somewhat ethereal student Luna Lovegood (EVANNA LYNCH) befriends him, and Cho Chang (KATIE LEUNG) continues to draw his romantic eye. More troubles are afoot, however, and they extend beyond Harry's rival classmate, Draco Malfoy (TOM FELTON).

For starters, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher has arrived in the form of Dolores Umbridge (IMELDA STAUNTON). She's a strict disciplinarian who's soon issuing a plethora of decrees that restrict the students -- including stopping them from practicing magic -- while also putting school leaders Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall (MAGGIE SMITH) on notice. She also creates unease among the likes of Professor Snape (ALAN RICKMAN), Sybil (EMMA THOMPSON), and groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid (ROBBIE COLTRANE), and with the backing of Fudge, she becomes the most powerful voice at Hogwarts.

Harry also learns of the secret Order of the Phoenix, populated by the likes of Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody (BRENDAN GLEESON), Remus (DAVID THEWLIS), and his godfather Sirius Black (GARY OLDMAN), among others. Harry's parents were once part of the Order that's now concerned that the evil and all-powerful Lord Voldemort (RALPH FIENNES) is planning to return, build and army with the likes of Lucius Malfoy (JASON ISAACS) and Bellatrix Lestrange (HELENA BONHAM CARTER), and hopes to acquire a certain weapon to do his evil bidding. Learning from Snape that Voldemort's mind is connected to his own and could cause serious consequences, Harry must contend with various nebulous nightmares and visions related to that, all while dealing with the rest of what's occurring at his school.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
It's not always the case, but sometimes the middle pictures in film trilogies feel like filler between the original and then concluding chapters. While new characters and storylines are usually introduced and existing ones are continued and/or deepened, such second films sometimes can't shake that placeholder aura.

When such movies are in the middle of even lengthier series, the problem is sometimes exacerbated, as the various elements are so familiar that the novelty and sometimes the fun are gone. Accordingly, viewers feel like they're going through the required motions before finally getting to the meaty stuff in the ultimate and occasionally the penultimate editions.

The one exception to that were the more recent "Star Wars" films, but not because they were any sort of cinematic masterpiece. Instead, it was simply because -- in an out of order way -- they were leading up to the original films, and the fun was in seeing the connections between the two series forming and coming together.

All of which leads to the latest Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." Still feeling like a rip-off of the themes in the original "Star Wars" pics (a point I noted in my review of the first HP film), this one is based on the fifth and lengthiest book (800+ pages). As a disclosure, I must admit I have not read any of them, and thus can't attest to how well it fits into the series and/or stands on its own in a literary sense.

As a movie, however, my impression is that it's not much more than filler between the previous installment, "Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire," and the upcoming final two pics, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." True, new characters and plot points are introduced, and some are jettisoned. Yet, when the end credits start rolling, the overall series story arc has not significantly changed in the more than two hours since the opening titles appeared on the screen.

That might not deter or matter to fans of the series who've been anxiously awaiting the next film (despite pretty much knowing what's going to occur), but for casual fans of the films, this one might feel like a cinematic case of spinning one's wheels for a few hours and not getting anywhere.

It also doesn't help that much of the story takes place within Harry's head (once again played by Daniel Radcliffe's noggin, with the rest of his bod also returning, albeit fully clothed rather than in that horsing around, Equus mode). Such angst and inner turmoil might make for good reading, but that doesn't translate that well to the screen.

Beyond having Radcliffe cycle through various emotions such as fear, concern, pain and anxiety, new-to-the-fold director David Yates (various TV work) simply offers various quickly cut flashback scenes to try to represent such turmoil. Nevertheless, that gets old rather quickly, and writer Michael Goldenberg doesn't come up with anything to match the fun and/or novelty found in the earlier installments, presumably due to being contractually obligated to follow J.K. Rowling's source material (albeit in severely truncated form).

Yes, the wand-based magic is still around, as are various flying scenes as well as moving figures in otherwise still paintings and newspaper photos, but it's become old hat by now. We want something new to wow us (sorry, the kittens in the plates effect isn't exactly the cat's meow, at least beyond the literal sense), and the film doesn't contain any signature moments as were found in the earlier films. The result is a pic that feels like an episode of a long-running TV series -- albeit a big-budget one -- where we've come to know what to expect. The film dutifully delivers that, but only that, and nothing more.

Work by the returning actors is solid as all now feel more than comfortable in their roles, and Imelda Staunton gives a new meaning to the notion of a strict schoolmarm. Evanna Lynch is somewhat rough around the edges playing an almost ethereal girl whose purpose is not yet clear, while Katie Leung is flat as Harry's love interest as there's zero chemistry, spark, or anything related between them. Accordingly, the much anticipated big-screen kiss between the two is about as exciting and/or memorable as pecking one's sibling on the cheek.

A general who's who of veteran actors (such as Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Brendan Gleeson and more) is also present, but there are too many of them and simply not enough time to do much, with the biggest sin being Alan Rickman not being used enough to take advantage of the series' most interesting and "fun" character.

Aside from the lack of any truly outstanding set piece, the special effects are fine, except for a giant character that doesn't look state of the art enough for a big film like this. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes, buried beneath a lot of makeup, has yet to make Lord Voldemort scary or memorable enough to live up to his "dare not speak his name" reputation.

I appreciate the film trying to grow up with its characters and thus be more mature (as compared with the first film that was obviously designed for younger viewers), but it simply lacks the spark, novelty and, dare I say, magic that made the earlier pics enjoyable and entertaining. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" rates as just a 5 out of 10. It's competently made, but feels like filler that barely advances the overall series plot.

Reviewed July 6, 2007 / Posted July 11, 2007

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